Fed­eral cleanups at Su­per­fund sites sus­pended

The Progress-Index - - OBITUARIES - By Ellen Knick­meyer and Kim Chan­dler

BIRM­ING­HAM, Ala. — The gov­ern­ment shut­down has sus­pended fed­eral cleanups at Su­per­fund sites around the na­tion and forced the can­cel­la­tion of pub­lic hear­ings, deep­en­ing the mis­trust and re­sent­ment of sur­round­ing res­i­dents who feel peo­ple in power long ago aban­doned them to live among the toxic residue of the coun­try’s fac­to­ries and mines.

“We are al­ready hurt­ing, and it’s just adding more fuel to the fire,” says 40-year-old Keisha Brown. Her home is in a com­mu­nity nes­tled among plants that turn coal into car­bon-rich fuel and other fac­to­ries on Birm­ing­ham’s north side.

The mostly African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity has been forced to cope with high lev­els of ar­senic, lead and other con­tam­i­nants in the soil that the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has been scrap­ing up and cart­ing away, house by house.

As Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Con­gress bat­tle over Trump’s de­mand for a wall on the south­ern U.S. bor­der, the 3-week-old par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down has stopped fed­eral work on Su­per­fund sites ex­cept for cases where the ad­min­is­tra­tion deems “there is an im­mi­nent threat to the safety of hu­man life or to the pro­tec­tion of prop­erty.”

EPA’s shut­down plans said the agency would eval­u­ate about 800 Su­per­fund sites to see how many could pose an im­me­di­ate threat. As an ex­am­ple of that kind of threat, it cited an acid leak from a mine that could threaten the pub­lic wa­ter sup­ply. That’s the haz­ard at North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Iron Moun­tain mine, where EPA work­ers help pre­vent an un­end­ing flow of lethally acidic runoff off the Su­per­fund site from spilling into rivers down­stream.

Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, said Bon­nie Bel­low, a for­mer EPA of­fi­cial who worked on Su­per­fund pub­lic out­reach at the agency, the im­pact of the stop­page of work at sites across the na­tion “wholly de­pends” on the length of the shut­down.

“Un­less there is im­me­di­ate risk like a storm, a flood, a week or two of slow­downs is not go­ing to very likely af­fect the cleanup at the site,” Bel­low said.

In north Birm­ing­ham, Brown said it’s been a cou­ple of weeks since she’s spot­ted any EPA crews at peo­ple’s houses. It was un­clear if state work­ers or con­trac­tors were con­tin­u­ing work.

But long be­fore the shut­down be­gan, Brown har­bored doubts the cleanup was work­ing any­way.

“My main con­cern is the health of the peo­ple out here,” said Brown, who has asthma. “All of us are sick, and we’ve got to func­tion on medicine ev­ery day.”

In terms of time, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment shut­down is a chrono­log­i­cal blip in the long his­tory of the site — which in­cludes ethics charges in a lo­cal bribery scan­dal to block fed­eral cleanup ef­forts — but adds to the uncer­tainty in an area where res­i­dents feel for­got­ten and be­trayed.

At the EPA, the shut­down has fur­loughed the bulk of the agency’s roughly 14,000 em­ploy­ees. It also means the EPA isn’t get­ting most of the daily stream of en­vi­ron­men­tal ques­tions and tips from the pub­lic. Rou­tine in­spec­tions aren’t hap­pen­ing. State, lo­cal and pri­vate emails to EPA of­fi­cials of­ten get au­to­mated mes­sages back promis­ing a re­sponse when the shut­down ends.

In Mon­tana, for in­stance, state of­fi­cials this month found them­selves field­ing calls from a tribal mem­ber wor­ried about drink­ing wa­ter with a funny look to it, said Kristi Ponozzo, pub­lic-pol­icy di­rec­tor at that state’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity. The EPA nor­mally pro­vides tribes with tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance on wa­ter sup­plies.

With most EPA col­leagues idled, Ponozzo said, her agency also had to call off an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view meet­ing for a min­ing project, po­ten­tially de­lay­ing the project.

But it’s the agency’s work at Su­per­fund sites — less­en­ing the threat from old nu­clear-weapons plants, chem­i­cal fac­to­ries, mines and other en­ti­ties — that gets much of the at­ten­tion.


Keisha Brown, 40, stands in front of a scrap pile from one of the in­dus­trial prop­er­ties that faces her house in a Su­per­fund area Wed­nes­day in Birm­ing­ham, Ala. Brown said res­i­dents in the area have suf­fered for years from the ef­fects of in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion.

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